Children as young as eight are being sexually exploited online, Barnardo’s the UK’s largest children’s charity, has revealed.
The popularity of live streaming services like TikTok is contributing to younger children needing to access specialist help after being exploited online, the charity says.
Children using streaming services can be contacted by predators using the comments function on live videos, the charity warns.
In previous years Barnardo’s youngest child sexual exploitation service users were aged ten.
Broadcasting videos live over the internet has become very popular among children and young people.
A survey by YouGov for Barnardo’s in 2018 found 57 per cent of 12-year-olds and more than one in four children aged ten (28 per cent) admitted live streaming content over the internet using apps meant for people over the age of 13.
Almost a quarter of ten to 16-year-olds (24 per cent) said that they or a friend regretted posting live content on apps and websites.
The warning comes amid growing concerns about the online safety of children. Last month, the father of a 14-year-old girl, Molly Russell, who took her own life, said Instagram “helped kill my daughter” after she viewed material on the social media site linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.
Yesterday Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said he will write to Tinder and Grindr asking what measures they have in place to keep children safe after an investigation found youngsters had been sexually exploited after evading age checks on the dating apps.
Marguerite Hunter Blair, chief executive of the charity Play Scotland, is calling on social media companies to offer online coaching for parents to teach them how to protect their children.
Barnardo’s stressed that all children are vulnerable and there is no stereotypical “at risk” profile for victims of any type of sexual abuse or exploitation.
Launching an urgent appeal to fund its child exploitation services, Javed Khan, the charity’s chief executive, said: “When we think of young people who have been sexually exploited, a stereotypically ‘vulnerable’ child may come to mind; someone in the care system, who doesn’t have a reliable support network or who is disengaged with education. “But the fact is any child can become the victim of sexual exploitation or abuse, even children in loving, stable families. Without the right security settings, children broadcasting live video of themselves over the internet could be targeted by abusers in their bedrooms.
“It’s vital parents get to know and understand the technology their children are using and make sure they have appropriate security settings in place.
“They should also talk to their children about sex and relationships and the possible risks and dangers online so children feel able to confide in them if something doesn’t feel right.
“We are also calling for a legal duty on technology companies to prevent children being harmed online.”
Ruby, 14, was in a loving family when she was groomed and abused. She started using adult dating apps, sending explicit pictures and videos of herself to people online. She was 14 when she met one of the men and had sex for the first time.
Ruby said: “Deep down I knew it was wrong and I began to regret it. I was still just 14 and hadn’t been ready. I met another boy and I believed I loved him. I felt it was my responsibility to make him happy. He would Skype me during the night and force me to stay awake with him. He wouldn’t speak to me if I didn’t.
“Eventually my parents caught me and it felt as if my entire world had finally fallen to pieces. All of the things I had done, and had been done to me, were out in the open.
“The feeling of self-disgust was so strong that it made me want to tear out of my own skin just so that I would feel clean.”
Ruby was referred to a Barnardo’s project worker who taught her to understand grooming.